Posted by: Rob | October 7, 2008

Field Notes From A Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert

After signing this book out from our local library about four or five times, I have finally managed to finish reading it.  Not because it’s not compelling reading, though.  I just have trouble finding the time to devote to reading.

The book is a compilation of field learnings from around the world that are purportedly tied to earth’s global climate change and are theoretically the result of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) and then some visits with people in places where responses to global warming theory are being put into practice.

I have done a lot of reading on the subject of climate change and, I’ll admit, I have gone from being a skeptic of global warming theory to an adherent to indifferent.  If the theory is wrong, then we have nothing to worry about and if the theory is even moderately correct, then it doesn’t matter, because the damage has been done and there’s nothing we can do about it.

One thing of note in Kolbert’s research (and particularly relevant, given the current climatic conditions that the AGW naysayers are trumpeting as proof that climate change/global warming is a myth) is that air temperature is too unreliable for any sort of trend upon which to draw conclusions about past conditions or forecast future conditions.  Earth core temperatures – down through permafrost – are much more stable and provide an indication of what is occurring – slowly – over time.  These concepts were explained to Kolbert by University of Alaska professor Vladimir Romanovsky, a geophysicist and permafrost expert.  I have to say that I did wonder about permafrost evidence presented in the book (published in 2005) when I read this article about recent findings on permafrost survival through previous warming periods.

Kolbert goes on to visit the Greenland ice sheet, looks into butterflies in the U.K. and a now presumably extinct toad in Costa Rica’s cloud forest (I read about the Golden Toad in Tim Flannery’s The Weather Makers), and visits the site where human civilization got started before checking in with the Dutch and checking out the new Floating Houses.

She discusses some of the political stumbling blocks that have prevented much activity toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions in places like the U.S. and Canada, even after the Kyoto Protocol, before profiling the voluntary emissions collectively achieved by the good people of Burlington, VT.

I think, on the whole, that Kolbert comes down on the side that believes there has been Dangerous Anthropogenic Interference (DAI), a term that climatologists use to describe the hazards of rising greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere and, while no one really knows what will happen, suspect that some of the consequences may not be that good for humans.

My favourite passage from the book is a quote by David Rind, a climate scientist who has worked at the Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) since 1978, where he’s talking about a series of model results indicating increasing drought and water shortage stemming from increased levels of atmospheric CO2:

“I gave a talk based on these drought indices out in California to water-resource managers.  And they said, ‘Well if that [drought area covers practically all of USA] happens, forget it.’  There’s just no way they can deal with that.

Obviously, if you get drought indices like these, there’s no adaptation that’s possible.  But let’s say it’s not that severe.  What adaptation are we talking about?  Adaptation in 2020?  Adaptation in 2040?  Adaptation in 2060?  Because the way the models project this, as global warming gets going, once you’ve adapted to one decade, you’re going to have to change everything the next decade.

We may say that we’re more technologically able than earlier societies.  But one thing about climate change is it’s potentially geopolitically destabilizing.  And we’re not only more technologically able; we’re more technologically able destructively as well.  I think it’s impossible to predict what will happen.  I guess – though I won’t be around to see it – I wouldn’t be shocked to find out that by 2100 most things were destroyed.”

He paused.

“That’s sort of an extreme view.”


  1. It is kind of scary, to think that maybe there isn’t anything we can do that will help. Our great-grandchildren may be living in a very different world. But I’ve sort of taken a Dr. Strangelove view of it. I do what I can, and hope for the best.

  2. […] read in Elizabeth Kolbert’s book “Field Notes from a Catastrophe” that core temperatures through the permafrost at high latitudes are a much more stable and reliable […]

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